India's Ragpickers: An insight into circular economies?

Indian Ragpickers, much like the late Rag and Bone Men of the west play an important role in India's plastics recycling–Is this an insight or exploitation?

The plastics problem

Plastic pollution has become one of the most pressing aspects of environmental concerns in the public consciousness.

The rate of plastic usage and disposal means that half of all plastics ever manufactured have been produced in less than the last 20 years.

This exponential increase in production went from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015 - and production is expected to double by 2050.

And there are the oceans.

Every year, about 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the oceans from coastal nations, which is the equivalent of setting five garbage bags full of trash on every last foot of coastline around the entire globe.

Plastics also often contain additives to make them more durable - many of which contribute to an extension in the life of products when they become litter, with some estimates ranging up to a minimum of 400 years to break down.

Growing public awareness

With public awareness growing as to the detrimental impacts of plastic on the environment, sustainability efforts have seen fundamental advances, with everything from comprehensive ESGs to sustainable procurement - notwithstanding governmental intervention.

A recent, significant example of governments stepping in to impel sustainability came in the form of Germany' s Supply Chain Due Diligence Act, under which, businesses that fail to comply are liable to be fined up to 2% of their revenues. 

The European Union as a whole is fast moving towards a legal framework which is set to have a significant impact across the continent with ramifications stretching beyond.

The European Union’s Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive- which is set to come into force in 2024 - obligates large companies to identify environmental impacts and to prevent or mitigate these in their internal operations and supply chains.

It has been reported that failure to comply could result in directors being found guilty of a breach of fiduciary duty and/or companies being subject to civil liability claims, allowing victims to sue for damages.

Such a move, with serious financial and legal consequences attached, will prove a massive stimulus towards corporate sustainability efforts - possibly on a scale that hasn’t been witnessed before.

Gems in the Landfills? The example of Indian Ragpickers

India recently came into the spotlight on the plastic problem, when PlastIndia Foundation president Jigish Doshi, said that a ban on plastics is actually not the solution to the conundrum.

Doshi revealed that the true key to solving the plastics issue was effective waste management solutions - and proper recycling, appearing as an advocate of a circular economy that unequivocally includes plastics in its structure.

In India, the people who make their living by recycling waste are known as ragpickers. In New Delhi alone, there are 300,000 ragpickers, with another 300,000 in Mumbai, of whom, controversially, 120,000 are under the age of 14.

Ragpickers are an integral part of India's culture, however.

Doshi says: “The problem is that the ragpickers don’t have the technology or are not incentivised enough to collect small plastic waste such as straws, etc. Therefore, the need of the hour is a waste management solution and recycling technology that ensures proper collection and recycling of plastic waste.

"The ragpickers who play a key role in this process should be given proper incentives. Waste management solutions and recycling technologies need to be put in place to combat pollution and protect the environment.”

Momentarily suspending our ethical judgement of the situation, it should be recognised that Ragpickers exist in India - just as rag and bone men did in the United Kingdom until the latter half of the 20th Century. Rag and bone men also played an important role in recycling in the west - a microcosm of proto-circular economies.

The insight that Doshi offers - something that sustainability efforts and strategies in the west could perhaps garner insight from - is that sustainability solutions should utilise the systems that are already in place - as opposed to attempting to undo them. Perhaps what is needed is not resistance, but recanalisation and sublimation. 

A potentially significant insight - if we just stop for a moment, and consider.

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